A Jersey Jazz Interview with Jack Wilkins (Photos by Melody Reed firstname.lastname@example.org)Reprinted with permission from Jersey Jazz,November 2007. www.njjs.org.
Guitarist Jack Wilkins has been a working jazz musician and teacher for most of his life. Brooklyn born, his career has taken him around much of the world but New York City is stillhome. He has produced an impressive body of recordings starting with his heralded "Windows" in 1973.
A teacher for almost as long as he has been in music, Jack has helped students at institutions like the New School and Manhattan School of Music. He has written numerous works on jazz and his efforts to increase public awareness of the jazz guitar garnered him a NEA
grant. But he is probably best known for his playing with many of the major jazz stars including Buddy Rich and Charles Mingus.
Today he performs regularly with the Mingus Orchestra.
JJ: Your dad played sax and your mother piano; how did you end up with the guitar?
JW: My stepfather played saxophone but my real father, who I never knew, played the guitar. So it must have been genetic. But lots of kids played guitar in Brooklyn in those days, so it was just part
of what Brooklyn was like. My cousin played and he gave me some tips and I started taking lessons with Joe Monte. He taught me how to read and took me through the fundamentals. So, I had a real foundation
by the time I was seventeen. Then I started taking lessons with Sid Margolis for a year or so before I started to teach for him. Which was good, I started to make some money and I was learning.
JJ: Did any of your friends influence your taste in music?
JW: I could not say for sure. There was one fellow, Jimmy Bell, who knew a lot about jazz and jazz guitar. He played a lot of records that amazed me. Plus my cousin Fred was a big fan of Django and
Charlie Christian. He turned me on to those records when I was about 15.
JJ:Which rock groups did you like?
JW: Chuck Berry, Bill Halley, the Doo Wop groups, Dwayne Eddy
“Guitar Boogie Shuffle” — they were all influential.
JJ: I’m surprised that you waited until you were 18 for your first
professional gig. Today it seems that a kid takes a lesson, forms a
band and starts looking for work.
JW: Well, I had to be sure I knew what I was doing. My first gig was actually reading, so I had to be a decent reader to do the job. The fact that I could read separated me from a lot of people.
JJ:Who led the gig?
JW: Les and Larry Elgart. A friend of mine, Dan Armstrong, was
the head of a studio in Manhattan. All the guitar players used to show up there: Barry Galbraith, Bucky, Gene Bertoncini, people like that. You would hang around in the studio and play all day. It was great. Barry Galbraith got me my first commercial. Then the ’60s rock dates came in. That was a whole different thing than what I was playing at the time.I actually recorded a couple of dates with The
Byrds. I never met them. I just did some layering. I didn’t do a lot of that; I was still playing with thebig bands,Warren Covington, Sammy Kaye, and so many I can’t remember, and some Latin bands. I
did whatever they needed and I really loved what I was doing. I learned new stuff all the time. Of course, I had to play with a million singers, so there would be ad-lib stuff. I’d have to know the
tune, have to hear the key, be able to transpose on the spot, that kind of stuff. Like the time Mel Torme sat in with Buddy’s band: he just started singing “Here’s That Rainy Day” without picking out a note
from us. He wanted to sing it in C but he sang a half tone lower which is B.
JJ:Was he happy with your backing?
JW: Well, he didn’t say anything, so I guess he was. It was just he and I. It was interesting. I liked the way he sang. He was an extraordinary musician.
JJ: I want to ask you about that. I think it was Buck Clayton who called backing a vocalist “dressing the windows.”Would you
comment on the differences in backing a vocalist rather than just playing in a group?
JW: When you back up a singer, the singer is the primary performer. You are taking a secondary role in a way, yet not really. The colors you create behind them, or the harmonic structures, the dynamics you can add, it is one unit. But, it does revolve more around the singer than the instrumentalist naturally.
JJ: You have studied and taught about the history of jazz. Did that give you a special feeling when you got to record with Earl
JW: Honestly, no. I was not that deep into the history of it at that time. I was just playing the music and whatever he wanted to play was OK with me. I was pretty young then, in my mid-20s. I knew what they wanted me to do. It was a rhythm guitar thing, but I would solo as well.
JJ:Was it the same with Lionel Hampton?
JW: Well, the gigs I did with Lionel were also with Buddy. Lionel played with us a few times at Buddy’s club and also did a recording called Transitions. That was about ’73 and Lionel recorded one of my
tunes, which was a thrill for me. He played great on it too.
JJ: You were also with Buddy Rich for a considerable time. Thanks to that recording made on his bus, he now has a reputation for a really hot temper, but I have heard first hand stories about a very different Buddy Rich. How would you describe him?
JW: He was generous and caring and great to be around. That recording is criminal. It left a legacy that has something to do with him, but that is all people remember now. That is a shame, because this guy played with everybody — all the giants of jazz and he was one himself. Nobody played better drums. I loved the way he played. Sonny Fortune
loved the way he played. Kenny Barron loved theway he played. The guy was brilliant — a genius drummer really. He never did that with us. He had a great band and he was really happy with us. He just laid back and
played drums. He was the drummer in the band and he did his obligatory drum solo every night, which was something to see. I sat two feet away
from him every night and watched, and every time he did that, I couldn’t believe it.
People that say this stuff about him, did they actually know him? Well there are people he had trouble with I’m sure. Here’s the way I figure it: If somebody hires you to do a job, you do it, if you don’t want to — you leave. I’ve done that. I’ve worked with people where I didn’t like the music but I did like them. I said I can’t do this, no hard
feelings, but I’m out of here.
JJ: How did you get into Buddy’s band?
JW: Stanley Kay was his manager and I knew Stanley for some years. Ritchie Resnikoff was hired to do the gig and Stanley called and asked if I could make the rehearsal because Ritchie couldn’t. I made
the rehearsal, then Ritchie couldn’t do the gig, and Buddy liked the way I played, so he hired me. He gave me lots of room to play. He loved the way I played. He let me play for as long as I wanted;
never said a word. In fact, he featured me many times. The whole band would get off the stage and I would play solo guitar. So, what’s not to like?
(Laughs) The guy was generous with his music and his time. The money was all right. It wasn’t great, but you know, playing with Buddy Rich six nights aweek, 45 weeks a year, that’s fantastic.
JJ: How long were you with him?
JW: Not that long, two and a half years I think. I was only with the small band. They did put a big band together once to do something in Washington at the Kennedy Center. I didn’t want to play in the big band. I was buried in that. There was nothing for me to play in the big band. There were no hard feelings, Buddy understood.
JJ: You also worked with Claude Bolling.
JW: Claude Bolling, yes I sure did. The music was his suite for classical piano and guitar and various pieces like that. It was a lot of fun. It was not easy to play some of that, but I learned it.
JJ:Was it recorded?
JW: No, but I have some live tapes of it, but I haven’t listened to it since it was recorded. I did that also with Astrud Gilberto. I toured with her for about a year. I have tapes of us in Japan in ’77,
I think. That’s 30 years ago — I was about three.
JJ: How was working with Zoot Sims?
JW: I played with Zoot at the Gibson Jazz Party in Colorado. That was the first time I met him. Herecorded also with Buddy. He recorded my tune on the same track as Lionel Hampton. I played with him at different functions around town: the New School, little parties, a bunch of things. He was a fun cat to play with as well as Al Cohn.
JJ:When did you first meet Bill Evans?
JW: The first time was at the Village Gate in ’68 or something.We just talked at the bar for a few minutes. I didn’t actually get to know him. Then about ’76, Eddie Gomez and I were good friends and he said come down and play with Bill Evans, he’s playing at a place called Harpers on 11th and 6th Avenue. I didn’t really want to. I was scared to just sit in, but Eddie insisted. So I did and it was fine. It was wild actually. He was wild. He didn’t even call the tune. He would just start playing. He had a great presence about him. He was very,
very bright. Genius might be the right word for him. I didn’t know him that well, but what I got from him was he was a very deep character. I’m not sure what he was feeling or thinking half the time. Eddie
always praised him to the heavens and Eddie is a great musician, a genius in his own way.
JJ: You are also associated with Charlie Mingus; would you tell us about him?
JW: I think that was also through Eddie Gomez. Eddie invited me to come up to Charles’s apartment and work on some music with Charles. Charles wasn’t playing at the time. He was confined to his wheelchair. I went and got to know him. He was a lot of fun. He was great. I mean he is another one — a brooding character and all that, but I didn’t see
that side of him at all.
JJ: I’m interested that you only refer to him as “Charles.”
JW: As opposed to what? Everyone called him Charles, I never heard anyone call him Charlie
(laughs). That might have forced him to get crazy, huh?
JJ: So you worked with him at his place?
JW: Yeah, we worked on Charles’s ideas and his melodies that he heard in his head. It was a great experience. Then I did two records with him. This was in ’77. In 1996 Sue Mingus put together a group of five guitars, piano, bass and drums.We did a few concerts around New York and played every Monday night at the Time Café. We eventually
played Monday nights at the Blue Note and then played at the old Iridium near Lincoln Center. The band was great with Larry Coryell, Russell Malone, Vic Juris, Dave Gilmore, Ed Cherry and many others.
I decided to try my hand at arranging. It turned out pretty well and Sue Mingus had some of my arrangements published by Hal Leonard Music. The book is called 5 Guitars Play Mingus (HL00699248).
That was a lot of fun.
JJ: Did you continue a close involvement with his music after he died?
JW: Actually, when Sue Mingus put together the orchestra, the big band and the dynasty band, she called me to do that. Then in ’91, I think it was, we did a world tour of the Mingus Epitaph conducted by Gunther Schuller.
JJ: You have a long involvement in teaching, especially with your Jazz Guitar program. Would you tell us about that?
JW: I started when I was about 18, just to make some money and I have been teaching ever since: private students, the jazz program at the Manhattan School of Music, Long Island University, the New School, NYU, not to mention colleges all around the country. I go and teach for a week, or at least a few days.
This jazz guitar program basically goes back as far as recorded music and I have some representation of what was going on in the 1800s by guys like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, etc. So I take it from there to Charlie Christian, not to mention the acoustic players like George Van Eps and Carl Kress. I have transcriptions and recordings of all this music. I play it and demonstrate it. I’ve learned all these things and I can play them just to show the students where it came from. Then it branches off to all the post-Christian greats. It is just a great big branch; it goes on and on and on. I go up to the
early ’80s because it is only an eight-week course, two hours a week for eight weeks. So, I go as far as I can.
I think the early things are fascinating, mostly because there are some videos of Django for example and students love to see those solos. They listen to it, and then see him play and then I demonstrate
how he did it. I try to find every conceivable bit of video that I can. Charlie Christian for example, there's no video of him, none, which is unfortunate. He was only recording for three years. However, someday someone may find some, who knows. Then I give them transcriptions and compilation CDs.
Now I am doing this other teaching thing discussing the Great American Songbook. I’m doing classes about lyrics and songs and how they were put together. Fascinating stuff. It is great fun. I love it. These great composers wrote some of the great songs of all time. American culture is based on standard tunes and jazz in terms of its art. Think
about it, painting hasn’t been an American art so much. I mean there are great painters, but America’s true art form is jazz and the standard tunes. These standard tunes didn’t start here, but we codified it by combining all the elements that were truly American stuff. American folk singers, blues players, and it goes on and on. It is a fascinating study.
JJ:What was it like being a judge for the Monk Institute Guitar Composition in DC?
JW: It wasn’t just me. There was also Gene Bertoncini and Steve Kahn. The three of us put together the program that we wanted the students
to audition. Then we listened to all these tapes over a period of three days. I don’t know how many we listened to.We were there for six to eight hours each day, so it must have been maybe 300. Out of
those we had to pick 10. (Laughs) So it was not an easy task. Some we knew couldn’t play, but some you had to go back and listen to several times.The live performance had Pat Martino, Pat Metheny and George Benson as final judges.We went also, but we did not judge the finals.
JJ: How do you feel when you are performing and the audience isn’t paying attention?
JW: That used to bug me a lot more than it does now. It used to really, really make me crazy. I’d stop playing and pack up. Now, I don’t know. I feel if I’m really playing well, I might actually get some people to listen.
If you are playing in a restaurant, there is no way you can force them to listen. It’s a restaurant, not a concert; and you can’t expect them to be quiet. You can hope, but you can’t really do anything about it.
It’s a restaurant. They are there to serve food and drink. Music is secondary. I know that now. Part of the reason it doesn’t drive me crazy when I play even solo guitar now is I can get into a zone
where I don’t even hear the noise around me. A couple months ago I was playing at Le Madeleine, filling in for Gene Bertoncini. The whole place was pretty empty except for a few friends of mine at the bar and a table of three right next to me, and they were talking a mile a minute. I just tuned them out and forgot all about it. When the set was over my friends asked: “Man didn’t that drive you crazy?” I said: “What was that.” “The people talking loudly like that.” I said: “Oh, I didn’t notice.” You can tune them out. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.
JJ:Would you tell us about your Benedetto guitar?
JW: I’ve had it close to a year now. It was made with certain specs I had in mind. Bob Benedetto and Fender Guild were partners at the time and they wanted to put out these models: one was Bucky’s, one was Howard Alden’s and one was mine. They were going to make a series but Bob and Fender Guild had a falling out. I’m not sure of the details, so they cancelled the models unfortunately. However, I did get a stunning guitar out of it. This is the best I’ve ever played. I have
never been happier with an instrument than this.
JJ: You are a very well-traveled musician. Have you found any other area where jazz is as culturally important as it is in our area?
JW: Well, no. They like jazz in Japan quite a lot and there are a lot of fans in Europe. Jazz is not as popular as it used to be. I know that.
JJ: In addition to the tapes you mentioned, do you have any career mementoes?
JW: I have a lot of photos, most are on my web site, but I don’t have any of Dizzy or Lionel. That is too bad. It never occurred to me to do that. I didn’t have my eye on the history of it. (Laughs)
JJ: You were involved with something called the Blue Guitar exhibit at the Smithsonian. What was that?
JW: Scott Chinery was a multimillionaire and he loved guitars. He commissioned guitar makers to build him blue guitars. He didn’t care what the specs were; just make them blue. These guitars were on exhibit for some years. I went there twice and did some concerts playing one of those guitars. Jimmy Bruno and I did one concert. I got to play allof the guitars. Some were really good, others not so
good, like everything else.
JJ:What was the best advice you ever received about your career?
JW: I think it was when I played with a band that was a lot older than me and they all stopped because I hogged the band stand with my neverendingplaying. I was such a hot shot then! They all stopped playing and I felt very embarrassed. I asked: “Why did you all stop playing?” They said, “We were listening to you.” I suddenly understood
what they meant. I wasn’t listening to them! It was a revelation to me. It wasn’t really verbal advice, but I learned so much that night.
JJ: Any new recordings coming out?
JW: I just finished a new CD with Steve LaSpina, Jon Cowherd, and Mark Ferber called "Until It’s Time for You to Go". I’m very happy with this one. JeffBarone produced it and the sound is perfect. It should be available on my Web site soon
JJ: Final question, what do you enjoy doing outside of music?
JW: I play golf and tennis and I am a big movie buff. I like all kinds of movies but am partial to Sci-Fi. I also love to read and I’m a fan of anagrams. I must have two hundred of them.
JJ:Well, that’s it. Thank you for taking the time for us.
JW: It was my pleasure. It was fun.
Schaen Fox is a longtime jazz fan. Now retired,he devotes much of his time to the music, and shares his encounters with musicians in this column.
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